|Margaret and I bought opera tickets this year to check out the performances as well as the grand, reopened Mahalia Jackson Theatre on Basin Street, which I had never seen. Porgy and Bess was good, but Pearl Fishers was great. |
The young soprano, Losette Oropesa - her name says she was destined to sing opera - fit the part and carried off the implausible tale magnificently.
At first, I could not place Bizet's story, but it takes place in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in the Indian Ocean where the common people dance around in veils and flowing robes and generally seem blissful. The music, dance, costumes, staging and vocals by soloists and opera chorus, were lovely. It "almost" had a happy ending, for the lovers at least. Below follows a much better review than mine from Theodore Mahne of the Times-Picayune.
The company’s sparkling new production was also a new opera to many in the audience. It sufficiently made the case that this earlier work by the composer of “Carmen” deserves higher notice than it generally has received. With a lushly melodic score that includes several grand showcases for the singers, an exotic theatrically appealing setting, and a good old-fashioned tragic love triangle at its core, “The Pearl Fishers” (“Les Pecheurs de Perles”) strings together everything an opera lover could wish for.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the opera becoming a more regular part of the repertoire is its libretto – a convoluted mess of storytelling. Despite lengthy passages of exposition, relationships and motivations are never fully explained or developed. Indeed, the very title itself seems tossed aside quickly and the audience isn’t sure just what the setting or overall premise is, other than a love triangle in an exotic, faraway locale (Ceylon).
The depth of the friendship between Zurga and Nadir (expressed so beautifully in the opera’s best known duet, “Au fond du temple saint”), for example, is never fully explained, despite raising emotions so strong that it turns from love to hatred to revenge to an act of extreme self-sacrifice.
Nevertheless, when a production is this splendidly sung and staged, the improbabilities and plotline absurdities of grand opera are readily overlooked.
New Orleans-born soprano Lisette Oropesa sang the role of Leila, the priestess at the apex of the love triangle. Audiences will recall her debut with the company a couple of seasons ago as Gilda in “Rigoletto.” Here she has truly found her voice, which has developed beautifully. She has the lightness and flexibility for Bizet’s lines, while also showing an impressive depth and richness, adding layers of color. She also is a charming singing actress, drawing out all she can from the sketchily defined role.
Tenor William Burden gave the hunter Nadir (perhaps the most unfortunately named character in all of opera) a solid voice that came across with some effort. He has a lovely tone but was strained in the upper reaches. Bass Kenneth Weber was imposing and strong as the chief priest Nourabad.
The most impressive voice of the night belonged to Zurga, the leader of the tribe, played with flair and majesty by baritone Liam Bonner. This was a classic performance filled with power and lyrical beauty.
From the pit, Robert Lyall, the company’s general director, conducts the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra with a rich attention to colorful detail and sweeping melodic appeal. He shapes the piece with just the right balance: the grand swell of the score never gets blustery or overwhelming, allowing the sweet nature of the more delicate moments to blossom. Elegant playing is heard throughout, especially from the strings, flute and harp. Lyall and the LPO prove that the opera is more than one well-known duet.
Lyall pulled double duty by also staging the production, transporting the audience to its faraway time and place. Here too, his sense of balance paid off. Keeping extraneous background action to a minimum, he kept the focus on the primary performers, which could help overcome the libretto’s deficiencies. The several pantomimed flashback sequences were effectively staged maintaining the dreamy illusion of the piece.
The New Orleans Opera Chorus, under Carol Rausch’s sharply detailed direction, added greatly to the production’s success. Some of Bizet’s choral settings in this opera could rival those of Verdi in their sheer power. The singers handled them exquisitely, while never shifting the central focus of the opera. The dancers of the New Orleans Ballet Theatre, led by choreographer and artistic director Gregory Schramel, added polish and flair.
The physical production, designed by G. Alan Rusnak, was evocative and stylish. The imposing temple entrance and mountain setting leading to Leila’s religious shrine were particularly impressive. Dan Zimmer’s lighting added to the magic of it all; the storm scene was notable. Don and Linda Guillot’s wigs and costumes are always an asset to any production.
With this production, the New Orleans Opera Association proves once again how grand it can be when hitting on all cylinders. There’s just one more retrieve this “Pearl” of great price, Sunday’s matinee performance. Don’t let it slip by.
Theodore P. Mahne is a contributing writer for The Times-Picayune.